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But the deviousness and aberration of our human faculties frequently amount to something considerably more serious than this.
I will put a case.
I will suppose myself and another human being together, in some spot secure from the intrusion of spectators. A musket is conveniently at hand. It is already loaded. I say to my companion, “ I will place myself before you; I will stand motionless : take up that musket, and shoot me through the heart.” I want to know what passes in the mind of the man to whom these words are addressed.
I say, that one of the thoughts that will occur to many of the persons who should be so invited, will be, “Shall I take him at his word ?”
There are two things that restrain us from acts of violence and crime. The first is, the laws of morality. The second is, the construction that will be put upon our actions by our fellow-creatures, and the treatment we shall receive from them. I put out of the question here any particular value I may entertain for my challenger, or any degree of friendship and attachment I may feel for him.
The laws of morality (setting aside the consideration of any documents of religion or otherwise I may have imbibed from my parents and instructors) are matured within us by experience. In proportion as I am rendered familiar with my fellow-creatures, or with socieiy at large, I come to feel the ties which bind men to each other, and the wisdom and necessity of governing my conduct by inexorable rules. We are thus further and further removed from unexpected sallies of the mind, and the danger of suddenly starting away into acts not previously reflected on and considered.
With respect to the censure and retaliation of other men on my proceeding, these, by the terms of my supposition, are left out of the question.
It may be taken for granted, that no man but a madman, would in the case I have stated take the challenger at his word. But what I want to ascertain is, why the bare thought of doing so takes a momentary hold of the mind of the person addressed?
There are three principles in the nature of man which contribute to account for this.
First, the love of novelty.
Secondly, the love of enterprise and adventure. I become insupportably wearied with the repetition of rotatory acts and every-day occurrences. I want to be alive, to be something more than I commonly am, to change the scene, to cut the cable that binds my bark to the shore, to launch into the wide sea of possibilities, and to nourish my thoughts with observing a train of unforeseen consequences as they arise.
A third principle, which discovers itself in early childhood, and which never entirely quits us, is the love of power. We wish to be assured that we are something, and that we can produce notable effects
upon other beings out of ourselves. It is this principle, which instigates a child to destroy his playthings, and to torment and kill the animals around him.
But, even independently of the laws of morality, and the fear of censure and retaliation from our fellow-creatures, there are other things which would obviously restrain us from taking the challenger in the above supposition at his word.
If man were an omnipotent being, and at the same time retained all his present mental infirmities, it would be difficult to say of what extravagances he would be guilty. It is proverbially affirmed that power has a tendency to corrupt the best dispositions. Then what would not omnipotence effect ?
If, when I put an end to the life of a fellowcreature, all vestiges of what I had done were to disappear, this would take off a great part of the control upon my actions which at present subsists. But, as it is, there are many consequences that “give us pause." I do not like to see his blood streaming on the ground. I do not like to witness the spasms and convulsions of a dying man. Though wounded to the heart, he may speak. Then what may he chance to say ? What looks of reproach may he cast upon me? The musket may miss fire. If I wound him, the wound may be less mortal than I contemplated. Then what may I not have to fear? His dead body will be an incumbrance to me. It must be moved from the place where it lies. It must be buried. How is all this to be done by me? By one precipitate act, I have involved myself in a long train of loathsome and heart-sickening consequences.
If it should be said, that no one but a person of an abandoned character would fail, when the scene was actually before him, to feel an instant repugnance to the proposition, yet it will perhaps be admitted, that almost every reader, when he regards it as a supposition merely, says to himself for a moment, “ Would I? Could I?”
But, to bring the irrationality of man more completely to the test, let us change the supposition. Let us imagine him to be gifted with the powers of the fabled basilisk, “to monarchise, be feared, and kill with looks.” His present impulses, his passions, his modes of reasoning and choosing shall continue ; but his “will is neighboured to his act;" whatever he has forined a conception of with preference, is immediately realised; his thought is succeeded by the effect; and no traces are left be. hind, by means of which a shadow of censure or suspicion can be reflected on him.
Man is in truth a miracle. The human mind is a creature of celestial origin, shut up and confined in a wall of flesh. We feel a kind of proud impatience of the degradation to which we are condemned. We beat ourselves. to pieces against the wires of our cage, and long to escape, to shoot through the elements, and be as free to change at
instant the place where we dwell, as to change the subject to which our thoughts are applied.
This, or something like this, seems to be the source of our most portentous follies and absurdities. This is the original sin upon which St. Austin and Calvin descanted. Certain Arabic writers seem to have had this in their minds, when they tell us, that there is a black drop of blood in the heart of every man, in which is contained the fomes peccati, and add that, when Mahomet was in the fourth year of his age, the angel Gabriel caught him up from among his playfellows, and taking his heart from his bosom, squeezed out of it this first principle of frailty, in consequence of which he for ever after remained inaccessible to the weaknesses of other men a.
It is the observation of sir Thomas Browne : “ Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave.” One of the most remarkable examples of this is to be found in the pyramids of Egypt. They are generally considered as having been erected to be the tombs of the kings of that country. They have no opening by which for the light of heaven to enter, and afford no means for the accommodation of living man. An hundred thousand men are said to have been constantly employed in the building ; ten years to have been consumed in hewing and conveying the stones, and twenty more in completing the edifice. Of the
* Life of Mahomet, by Prideaux.